Numerous VA staffers have testified before the House Veterans Affair Committee that they were victims of retaliation for reporting problems at the government department.
ABC News reported that Carolyn Lerner, special counsel with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, told the committee Tuesday night that her office is investigating 67 cases of alleged retaliation against whistleblowers at the VA.
“The number increases daily,” Lerner said, adding that since June 1, her office has received 25 new complaints of retaliations from employees claiming they were whistleblowers.
According to ABC News, Jose Mathews, the former chief of psychiatry at the St. Louis health care system, told Congress that after he tried to point out problems at the VA to his senior management he was removed from his position and detailed to another assignment while an administrative investigation was initiated.
“I was told I was spending too much time with veterans,” Mathews testified. “They already professionally assassinated me.”
Christian Head, the legal and quality assurance associate director at the Veterans Affairs Los Angeles Health Care System, said he was also a victim of retaliation.
“I was labeled a rat,” Head said, adding there is a “cancer” within the VA’s leadership that perpetuates the idea that employees should be silent. “We should stand up and do the right thing.” He continued by saying, “I think veterans support me (in doing the right thing but) the reality is I’m always looking over my shoulder.”
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said a potential “nightmare scenario” is in the works because the VA’s demand for doctors will increase as more and more veterans seek care following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Real change is difficult,” Rep. Mike Michaud, the committee’s top Democrat said. “We all want Veterans Administration employees to feel comfortable raising their voices without fear it’ll mean the end of their careers.”
Meanwhile, according to CBS News, a top official at the Veterans Affairs Department says he is sorry that VA employees have suffered retaliation after making complaints about poor patient care, long wait times and other problems.
James Tuchschmidt, the No. 2 official at the Veterans Health Administration, the VA’s health care arm, apologized on behalf of the department at the congressional hearing Tuesday night.
“I apologize to everyone whose voice has been stifled,” he said after listening to four VA employees testify for nearly three hours about VA actions to limit criticism and strike back against whistleblowers. “That’s not what I stand for. I’m very disillusioned and sickened by all of this.”
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said the VA will be appointing an interim director from the medical inspector’s office, external from the current office. The office’s hotline was suspended immediately. All complaints should be referred to the VA’s Office of Inspector General.
“Unlike their supervisors, these whistleblowers have put the interests of veterans before their own,” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans panel said. “They understand that metrics and measurements mean nothing without personal responsibility.”
Rather than force whistleblowers out, “it is time that VA embraces their integrity and recommits itself to accomplishing the promise of providing high-quality health care to veterans,” Miller said.